We reviewed randomised trials (where participants have an equal chance of being assigned to either treatment) examining effects of increasing fish- and plant-based omega-3 fats on heart and circulatory disease (called cardiovascular diseases, CVD, which include heart attacks and stroke), fatness and blood fats (lipids, including cholesterol, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL – 'good' cholesterol) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL – 'bad' cholesterol)).
Omega-3 fats are essential – to stay healthy we must obtain some from food. The main types of omega-3 fats are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a fat found in plant foods, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both found in fish. There is a common belief that eating more fish or taking omega-3 supplements reduces our risk of heart disease, stroke and death.
The evidence is current to April 2017. The review included 79 trials involving over 112,000 people. These studies assessed effects of greater omega-3 intake versus lower or no omega-3 intake for heart and circulatory disease. Twenty-five studies were very trustworthy (well-designed so as not to give biased results). Participants were adults, some with existing illness and some healthy, living in North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. Participants increased omega-3 fats, or maintained their usual fats for at least a year. Most EPA and DHA trials provided capsules, few gave oily fish.
Increasing EPA and DHA has little or no effect on all-cause deaths and cardiovascular events (high-quality evidence) and probably makes little or no difference to cardiovascular death, coronary deaths or events, stroke, or heart irregularities (moderate-quality evidence, coronary events are illnesses of the arteries which supply the heart). EPA and DHA slightly reduce serum triglycerides and raise HDL (high-quality evidence).
Eating more ALA (for example, by increasing walnuts or enriched margarine) probably makes little or no difference to all-cause or cardiovascular deaths or coronary events but probably slightly reduce cardiovascular events, coronary mortality and heart irregularities (moderate/low-quality evidence). Effects of ALA on stroke are unclear as the evidence was of very low quality.
There is evidence that taking omega-3 capsules does not reduce heart disease, stroke or death. There is little evidence of effects of eating fish. Although EPA and DHA reduce triglycerides, supplementary omega-3 fats are probably not useful for preventing or treating heart and circulatory diseases. However, increasing plant-based ALA may be slightly protective for some heart and circulatory diseases.
This is the most extensive systematic assessment of effects of omega-3 fats on cardiovascular health to date. Moderate- and high-quality evidence suggests that increasing EPA and DHA has little or no effect on mortality or cardiovascular health (evidence mainly from supplement trials). Previous suggestions of benefits from EPA and DHA supplements appear to spring from trials with higher risk of bias. Low-quality evidence suggests ALA may slightly reduce CVD event risk, CHD mortality and arrhythmia.
Researchers have suggested that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids from oily fish (long-chain omega-3 (LCn3), including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)), as well as from plants (alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)) benefit cardiovascular health. Guidelines recommend increasing omega-3-rich foods, and sometimes supplementation, but recent trials have not confirmed this.
To assess effects of increased intake of fish- and plant-based omega-3 for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular (CVD) events, adiposity and lipids.
We searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE and Embase to April 2017, plus ClinicalTrials.gov and World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry to September 2016, with no language restrictions. We handsearched systematic review references and bibliographies and contacted authors.
We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that lasted at least 12 months and compared supplementation and/or advice to increase LCn3 or ALA intake versus usual or lower intake.
Two review authors independently assessed studies for inclusion, extracted data and assessed validity. We performed separate random-effects meta-analysis for ALA and LCn3 interventions, and assessed dose-response relationships through meta-regression.
We included 79 RCTs (112,059 participants) in this review update and found that 25 were at low summary risk of bias. Trials were of 12 to 72 months' duration and included adults at varying cardiovascular risk, mainly in high-income countries. Most studies assessed LCn3 supplementation with capsules, but some used LCn3- or ALA-rich or enriched foods or dietary advice compared to placebo or usual diet.
Meta-analysis and sensitivity analyses suggested little or no effect of increasing LCn3 on all-cause mortality (RR 0.98, 95% CI 0.90 to 1.03, 92,653 participants; 8189 deaths in 39 trials, high-quality evidence), cardiovascular mortality (RR 0.95, 95% CI 0.87 to 1.03, 67,772 participants; 4544 CVD deaths in 25 RCTs), cardiovascular events (RR 0.99, 95% CI 0.94 to 1.04, 90,378 participants; 14,737 people experienced events in 38 trials, high-quality evidence), coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality (RR 0.93, 95% CI 0.79 to 1.09, 73,491 participants; 1596 CHD deaths in 21 RCTs), stroke (RR 1.06, 95% CI 0.96 to 1.16, 89,358 participants; 1822 strokes in 28 trials) or arrhythmia (RR 0.97, 95% CI 0.90 to 1.05, 53,796 participants; 3788 people experienced arrhythmia in 28 RCTs). There was a suggestion that LCn3 reduced CHD events (RR 0.93, 95% CI 0.88 to 0.97, 84,301 participants; 5469 people experienced CHD events in 28 RCTs); however, this was not maintained in sensitivity analyses – LCn3 probably makes little or no difference to CHD event risk. All evidence was of moderate GRADE quality, except as noted.
Increasing ALA intake probably makes little or no difference to all-cause mortality (RR 1.01, 95% CI 0.84 to 1.20, 19,327 participants; 459 deaths, 5 RCTs), cardiovascular mortality (RR 0.96, 95% CI 0.74 to 1.25, 18,619 participants; 219 cardiovascular deaths, 4 RCTs), and it may make little or no difference to CHD events (RR 1.00, 95% CI 0.80 to 1.22, 19,061 participants, 397 CHD events, 4 RCTs, low-quality evidence). However, increased ALA may slightly reduce risk of cardiovascular events (from 4.8% to 4.7%, RR 0.95, 95% CI 0.83 to 1.07, 19,327 participants; 884 CVD events, 5 RCTs, low-quality evidence), and probably reduces risk of CHD mortality (1.1% to 1.0%, RR 0.95, 95% CI 0.72 to 1.26, 18,353 participants; 193 CHD deaths, 3 RCTs), and arrhythmia (3.3% to 2.6%, RR 0.79, 95% CI 0.57 to 1.10, 4,837 participants; 141 events, 1 RCT). Effects on stroke are unclear.
Sensitivity analysis retaining only trials at low summary risk of bias moved effect sizes towards the null (RR 1.0) for all LCn3 primary outcomes except arrhythmias, but for most ALA outcomes, effect sizes moved to suggest protection. LCn3 funnel plots suggested that adding in missing studies/results would move effect sizes towards null for most primary outcomes. There were no dose or duration effects in subgrouping or meta-regression.
There was no evidence that increasing LCn3 or ALA altered serious adverse events, adiposity or lipids, although LCn3 slightly reduced triglycerides and increased HDL. ALA probably reduces HDL (high- or moderate-quality evidence).